The cheese has moved

Sanjay Sarma | Updated on December 13, 2018

For the business of advertising, 2018 was a year of reconciliation with a ‘digital first’ world order

A year-end round-up of the advertising industry is usually about listicles on the most impactful campaigns, best TV commercials and best performing agencies; on client wins and losses, mergers & acquisitions, and a hat tip to the brave ones who branched out to set up independent shops.

But 2018 has been somewhat different — a reality check of sorts. It was a year of acceptance and reconciliation for the agency business with a new digital world order. It was the year of Wunderman Thompson. When the biggest agency of our times has finally conceded that, here on, it will be digital first.

The most impactful campaign this year didn’t come out of an agency. In fact it outed a few. To my mind, the Twitter hashtag #MeTooIndia was the Campaign of the Year. When a group of feisty women decided to speak up against sexual harassment at the workplace in India, it was only a matter of time before it reached the industry’s doorstep.

The hipster work culture, which made advertising agencies attractive in the first place, eventually proved to be its Achilles heel. The social media traction went mainstream and heads rolled. The movement turned into a nationwide campaign with a strong call to action.

What #MeTooIndia did was sharply bring to focus issues that should have been confronted head-on, years ago. Besides being a wake-up call to spring-clean the workplace, it was a reminder of the classic advertising adage ‘truth well told’, and a lesson on how narratives are likely to be shaped in the future.

Which brings me to the growing influence of digital in 2018 and the declining relevance of advertising agencies in this universe.

From defining narratives to being a low-risk approach for targeted reach, the year saw digital move from the fringes to take centre stage. Peaking smartphone sales and cheap data on tap led to an exponential rise in digital consumption on-the-go. Which helped the duo of Google and Facebook further consolidate, and threaten the very existence of the archaic advertising model.

From an average of 15 per cent or so, digital spends have now shot up to almost 50 per cent of advertising budgets for industries such as banking, finance & insurance — much of which is spent on these two platforms alone without any agency intervention. At the other end of the spectrum, start-ups, artisanal brands and small/local businesses rely almost entirely on digital to promote themselves. And Canva (a graphic design tool website) is their creative lifeline. Not a creative agency.

Made for digital, not adapted

The year 2018 saw campaigns created for digital. Not adapted. Collaborative content, branded content and product placements in short films & web series have been trends that gained legitimacy. Brand teams are now engaging directly with celebrities and influencers, content creators and film makers, with very little inputs from the agency.

The Cars24 campaign featuring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Mandira Bedi is a case in point. A list of memorable and sticky commercials this year would probably feature more digital films like #MaaNahiBhoolti by Domino’s Pizza, than TVCs.

2018 also saw the mainstreaming of the gig economy. Short-term contracts with freelancers, consultants and smaller teams have replaced large agency retainer payouts. Digital shops have replaced creative hotshops. On the other hand, large consulting firms like Accenture and KPMG have been acquiring a creative spine, merging their capabilities in data and analytics to offer cheaper solutions to reach consumers — all of which undercuts mainline advertising agencies that have nothing new to offer. It’s a double blow for an industry already reeling under the stress of low retainers and shrinking margins.

To be fair, traditional agencies weren’t just sitting and watching from the sidelines. They did react. The same way they reacted last year. And the year before. By changing names, merging divisions, hiving off a unit, hiring the same top talent from each other, acquiring a clutch of digital, tech and activation firms doing big work, and dressing up balance sheets with their numbers. But without adding an iota of value in the entire process.

When there is zero organic growth and the struggle is for survival, there is much more that needs to be done. Being the oldest new-economy industry, advertising is now like the ageing uncle who hangs out in bars with tech-savvy nephews to look cool. But it isn’t working.

There wasn’t a single exciting start-up in 2018 that had a vision to do things differently. Which is telling. Some, who started off being different now look like any other agency. And a few who went independent have quietly returned to conventional agencies.

Globally, though, the new consultancy/agency TwentyFirstCenturyBrand (21CB) by Jonathan Mildenhall & Co is the most exciting venture of 2018 for me. Not Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital. Impeccable credentials apart, it has a soul that S4 lacks. And is driven by a purpose to build transformational brands of the future through a mix of strategy, marketing, tech and storytelling. Nothing less. I do hope they bring their kind of thinking to this part of the world soon.

And for those still romanticising advertising, do take off those rose-tinted glasses and address the elephant in the room. The cheese has moved, and it’s time to go find some new cheese.

See you on the other side of 2019. Stronger and sharper.


Sanjay Sarma is a brand marketing & advertising consultant. He is the Founder of boutique advisory firm SSARMA Consults and Design Worldwide

Published on December 13, 2018

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